(Dan McGarvey/CBC - image credit)
The president of the Hindu Society of Calgary has apologized after an outdoor food bank and free library donated to the temple by a small not-for-profit were cut down in mysterious circumstances last week.
What was first thought to be an act of vandalism by strangers turned out to be an act committed by temple insiders, unhappy with their president and his decision to put an outdoor food bank outside the temple gates.
Raksh Joshi, president of the Hindu Society of Calgary, told CBC News last Wednesday that the supporting legs of the glass-fronted wooden boxes were cut off and the structures pushed over on the snow outside the temple, which is in an industrial area in Vista Heights.
"It feels so sad. I'm sick from my stomach," said Joshi, who added that he thinks it happened between 1 and 3 a.m. last Tuesday.
"I don't know why someone would do it," he said at the time.
The food bank was donated to help people in the community who are struggling financially to access food and other supplies during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Now, Joshi says he wasn't aware at the time of that interview that the damage was, in fact, caused by the management of his own organization. Some of them question his authority and his position as president, with a leadership election just a few months away.
"I had no knowledge about what the management did," said Joshi. "I had no idea about it."
"As the president of the Hindu Society of Calgary, I want to appeal to each and everybody to stay calm, peaceful and we will do the right thing for the community going forward," said Joshi.
The large food bank box had its legs sawed off and was pushed over in the snow.
"We will fix these problems. There was a miscommunication, no communication. This happened and it should have not happened," he said.
"I am sorry and I take responsibility."
As news of the vandalism spread in the community and rumours swirled about possible motives — everything from a random attack to someone trying to create religious divisions in the city — the chair of the board of trustees for the Hindu Society of Calgary, Rakesh Punj, posted on the society's Facebook page that the food bank and library were, in fact, cut down by the management.
"I, Rakesh Punj, herewith declare that the food bank removed from outside the Hindu Society of Calgary is removed by the management due to safety and security issues, but we are planning to reinstall it at other place," he wrote in the post.
"We are always supporters of community. Meanwhile, any needy person can come and contact to the office and pick the food from inside the temple."
Punj said in a second statement posted Friday on Facebook that the society's board of trustees has asked Joshi to step down, citing a lack of confidence.
Punj says the food bank wasn't approved by the board and there were concerns being raised about homeless people being attracted to the food bank and entering the building. But Joshi says he is the person elected to make decisions, not the board of trustees.
"Homeless people were coming inside the temple and were walking around at night. Our priest and his family got scared," said Punj.
He says there were also concerns Hindu devotees might be exposed to beef ingredients in donated foods by mistake.
"People asked us, 'please can you remove it,' and we take the action," he said. "And Mr. Joshi knows everything."
Punj added that due to its location in an industrial area, it wasn't being used much by those it was designed to help. Joshi disputes this, saying it was a busy location.
The "take a blessing, leave a blessing" food bank was donated to the temple by a local group, Love With Humanity Association, which has constructed and donated other food banks and multicultural libraries in and around Calgary.
The food bank opened last month and was endorsed by Ward 5 Coun. George Chahal as well as MLA Leela Aheer.
The association's Syed Najam Hassan says the food bank and library he built were gifts to help people in need. He says his mission is to spread love and smiles and that will continue.
Joshi says he is sorry that Hassan has been caught up in the temple's internal issues.
The Hindu Society of Calgary has been at its location in the northeast for more than 40 years.
He says the food bank will be reinstalled in some form, either inside or outside the temple, so the community can continue to access free food items.
Joshi says the incident was initially reported to police as an act of vandalism. He says he still considers what happened to an act of vandalism, just not one carried out by strangers.
He's not sure if any further action will be taken.
"I want to ease the tension and bring peace and harmony. I would like to work with Sikh community, Muslim community and our own community," he said.
Joshi says regardless of the ongoing tensions at the temple, he continues to be the society's elected president.
The president's post is for two years and an election is due this spring.
"Nobody can take away the president's position. The general body elected me, not these people," he said.
"This turmoil should not have been there and we will try to do the best for everyone going forward," said Joshi.
Joshi says he is planning a joint meeting to decide what to do next for the community.